A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.


28 thoughts on “A Geography Lesson

  1. I do love the imagery you use in your reviews! And I empathise about the geography – mine is absolutely hopeless, and I get unreasonably angry about travel books of any sort without maps. Heck, even big books of fiction could do with them at times! I’m definitely a mental traveller though – books help me escape in my head and hide from those rampaging Visigoths!

    • I would have loved a map in Archipelago! I’m so glad not to be alone in the geography stakes – I am so completely hopeless where countries are concerned. I do want to be better… I think it was learning capital cities at school that put me off! And oh yes to travel of the imagination – all the fun and none of the sense of being a lamb in a container headed to France. I am so with you in fighting off those silly Visigoths. 🙂

  2. Much sympathy with the stress translating to ill health problem. A recurring family problem has popped up again this week and has gone straight to my back so ‘head forward and up’ is my mantra – you’ll know what I mean. Funny that you picked Wild as I find walking very helpful with those Visigoths, although not as far or as intrepid a walk as the aptly named Cheryl Strayed. I hope those marauders make a swift exit.

    • Ha yes! I am doing a lot of head forward and up myself. I do so hope that by the time I write this, you will be feeling miles better. I am sort of getting there. It takes time. I have heard nothing but good things about walking. An osteopath I took my son to once said that if he experienced any pain from the treatment he should walk, because it brings our bodies back into harmony with themselves swiftly and gently. I should do more of it!

  3. …and then, there are those of is who deal with stress with a nice dark bar of chocolate. Over a book or a journal with an exquisite fountain pen. Exercise my dear, is never a source of comfort for me.

    But, I did love your review of both of these. Somehow Wild reminds me of Eat Pray Love, which I loathed. You made Strayed’s efforts sound noble, though I’m sure I’ll never read it.

    • Bellezza, I should have known you would have an extremely elegant and civilized solution! I like it very much. I have never read Eat Pray Love, though I read her follow-up, Committed, which I get the impression had more research and so on in it, was less of a bare-all memoir, and that I enjoyed. But these sorts of books are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea – or bar of chocolate! 🙂

  4. So sorry you are feeling rough. Hope it soon passes. I am not an exerciser at all either, but have been thinking about this sort of thing as I’ve just started reading The Outlander, which is about a woman on the run in the wilds of Canada. It’s been making me think a lot about survival, and the psychological effects of so much loneliness and so many challenges. I can’t imagine I’d do very well at it.

    • Ha, I would be hopeless! If I was stuck in a situation where it was all about survival, the best I could hope for would be someone to turn up who I could trade with/persuade to help me in some way. Basically, I’d have had it! I noticed you’d reviewed that book though – must come over and read that as I’m now hugely curious.

  5. And here I was going to suggest you take a holiday for a jaunt up Mt. Everest! The books sound like fun armchair adventure. I hope you get to feeling better soon.

  6. Those Visigoths certainly haven’t made off with your sense of humor. That was an entertaining read, characteristically funny and insightful. I think when our talking self is quietened and still, we’re able to listen as other parts of our self process our experiences. Anyway, circumnavigating the globe may not be quite your thing, but you are a marvellous cartographer of the inner world.

  7. I don’t think I could bear even to read about Cheryl Strayed’s walking, I am far too idle – and yet A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is one of my favourite fun books – definitely one to wave at Visigoths too – who I hope are well on their way back to, erm, Visigothia? Visigothland?

    The Roffey sounds intriguing though, and I notice you’re reading another one by her at the moment, I hope you’ll write about it… But get better first.

    • Lol, I think I’m in favour of Visigothia (though I believe they were Goths from East Germany who ended up in Spain – sooo dull) because they certainly deserve their own country, or at least a place to be banished to! Now I must look up A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, because I don’t mind it at all when other people do the difficult stuff, like the hiking. And Roffey is fab – do try her if you can.

  8. I can understand this impulse so well (though I would never do what Cheryl Strayed did because I am a chicken). When I am extremely stressed, I become overwhelmed by the instinct to GET AWAY. In fact I think what I want to get away from is the inside of my own brain, but since that is impossible, it sometimes works as an acceptable substitute to just get away in general. I always want to hop in my car and take off. (But I don’t.)

    • Jenny you are so smart. Yes, that’s exactly right – escape IS paramount, if only one didn’t have to drag along the bleeding carcass of oneself at the same time, as it were. I am chicken too – and how could I pack as many books as I would need? See that knocks escape on the head immediately for me.

  9. Roffey’s book sounds interesting. I’m all for travelling but not for walking. I could tell stories about the Caribbean … I went there during an extremely stressful period in my life and – no it didn’t do me any good. I came back far worse. I was picturing the island being ripped off and floating away into space. Almost like Sandra Bullock in Gravity (the only part about Gravity I like is that it captures panic really well). I don’t think thinking and doing are mutually exclusive, though but travelling as a form of therapy can only work in a few cases. If the basic problem is that you don’t feel rooted . . .

    • Having read a fair bit of Roffey lately, I can’t imagine the Caribbean would be a soothing place at all! And you remind me that Gravity is a film I’d probably better not see (I can do panic all too well myself!). I do hope you found somewhere a lot more congenial to your spirit to recover in!

  10. So sorry you’re having a hard time of it. If you’re anything like me you’re feeling rough because your body has tried every which way to get you to stop and rest but because you’ve ignored it it has had to take drastic action. Every time it happens I always swear that in future I will behave more circumspectly, but do I ever??????

    I’m another one with faulty geography. It’s the United States that get me every time. I know where Florida and California are but the bits in between floor me. I have only just discovered that Washington DC is South of New York and I’m still not sure that I actually believe that.

    • Oh Alex, never a truer word said! Yes that is pretty much the exact route of my downfall every time. I make those promises too, and every time the next crisis involves something or someone even more impossible to say no to. Sigh. As for Washington, the sheer fact they have two of them and in different places is unfair. I call that loading the dice.

  11. I don’t think there is time to be a thinker and a doer, is there?  Or not when you take family and personal relationships into things.  I read a blog post about travel bloggers and the way different places can inspire people and it’s true that my trip to Barcelona inspired me to start writing my first short story for about twenty years! (whether I finish it is another matter.)  That changed my outlook on things, as travel to me before that had been a necessary evil.  It’s only in the past few years that I have worked out how to enjoy time away out of my routine.

    I would definitely not find travel a useful antidote to stress though.  Getting myself to the airport this summer made me quite tense enough.


    • I am putting my vote down here for you to write a post about how to enjoy time out of your routine because I would love to learn how to do that! I am wedded to normal life – I love it, and resent anything ‘special’ happening. I am hopeless! Your last comment about the airport really made me laugh – I feel exactly the same!

  12. I have a reputation in my family for buying cards (birthday, Valentine’s Day, Easter), writing a little note in them, addressing them, and then failing to actually mail them. When I opined that I was not very thoughtful, my brother said, “Oh, you’re thoughtful…you’re just not do-ful.” Now I know why…I am a thinker and not a doer!

  13. Pingback: Best Books of 2014 | Tales from the Reading Room

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